A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dr. Seuss' If I Ran the Zoo won a Caldecott Honor. Main character and narrator Gerald McGrew imagines all the fantastic beasts he'd find in his travels around the world, which he'd then put in a very different kind of zoo. However, the book, which was first published in 1950, features racist and great-White-hunter stereotypes and insensitive imagery, including an illustration of two barefoot, bare-chested Africans wearing grass skirts and large nose rings, and three Asian men with long, stringy mustaches and wearing tunics and wooden sandals. The men are carrying an exotic beast in a large cage balanced on their heads, and atop the cage is the young White narrator, Gerald, with a rifle. There are also stereotypical portrayals of Middle Eastern characters, including "Persian princes" and a desert "chieftain" riding a beast called a Mulligatawny. Gerald says, "A Mulligatawny is fine for my zoo / And so is a chieftain. I'll bring one back, too," equating a person from another culture and an exotic animal.
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What's the story?
In IF I RAN THE ZOO, Dr. Seuss imagines a different kind of zoo than the ones we know, with its Joats and Lunks and Mulligatawnies from locales like the Desert of Zind and the Wilds of Nantucket. Young Gerald McGrew imagines the creatures he would put on display, the distant lands where he would track them, and the inventive means he would use to trap them.
Is it any good?
This Seuss book is a joyride of verse and ridiculous creatures that has some problematic images among the fanciful illustrations. Here is life lived as a fantastical experience, lit by an imagination that shimmers and bursts like fireworks. Though the animals are pure figments, Seuss transports readers into the adventure with Gerald McGrew as he globetrots in search of the best wild animals. Unfortunately, some of the people Gerald sees in faraway places are presented as racist stereotypes, including "Persian princes" wearing billowy pants and turbans; two barefoot, shirtless African men with top knots and wearing large nose rings and grass skirts; and three Asian men wearing tunics and wooden sandals.
Seuss stumbles as he dishes up some shocking verbally and visually racist commentary: "I'll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant," or the Indian chieftains whom Gerald will display along with the "scraggle-footed Mulligatawny," or the African porters. Now is as good a time as any to have a discussion about how stereotypes can be hurtful.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about zoos, and the imaginary animals in If I Ran the Zoo. What animals would you want to have in your zoo?
Do you see some racial stereotypes in the book? How have attitudes changed since 1950, when this book was first published? How does the media reflect changing values?
What creatures do you like to imagine that aren't actually found in the world?
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